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Fate of Lab Schools Offers Lesson for Holmes Group

To the Editor:

The Holmes Group is certainly to be commended for its efforts to link colleges and universities with school districts in the quest for better ways to educate teachers ("Holmes Group Expands Scope in Reform Push," Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996). Providing our prospective teachers with real-life experiences throughout their preparation will surely improve the quality of teaching and learning in the classrooms of first-year teachers.

While I applaud the Holmes Group and individual colleges and universities pursuing professional-development schools and other useful partnerships with local schools, I want to point out that at one time not so long ago higher education embraced and then abandoned similarly valuable arrangements known as laboratory schools.

Following Sputnik and other educational wake-up calls during the 1950s, state legislatures and universities collaborated to create more than 200 laboratory schools by the mid-1960s. The primary purpose of these schools was to test and study educational innovations and to prepare well-qualified teachers. During the teaching glut of the 1970s and '80s and subsequent downsizing of many colleges of education, lab schools declined in number, down to about 120 today.

Colleges and universities must send a consistent message about the importance of testing and studying educational innovation and preparing excellent teachers through their actions. Currently functioning laboratory schools must be exploited to the maximum extent possible for the study of teaching and learning and the preparation of teachers. Instead, many still struggle for recognition and meaningful involvement with the very universities with which they are associated.

At the same time, colleges and universities must exercise integrity when engaging local public schools in partnerships for teacher preparation, so that the relationship is long-term and meaningful to both parties. Unless planned very carefully, both in terms of personnel and of funding, professional-development schools are likely to be discarded, just as were many lab schools, when popular attention turns away from school reform and campus fiscal resources become tight.

Dianne Ashby
Illinois State University
Normal, Ill.

Appointed State Commissioner Would Tilt Vermont 'Balance'

To the Editor:

Once again the issue of the appointment of the commissioner of education is before the Vermont legislature ("Politics Gums Up Search for Vermont Schools Chief," Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996). The Senate has already voted in favor of making substantial changes in the way our commissioner will be chosen and will function in the future. This vote was taken without the benefit of a hearing or full public discussion of important issues involved. Fortunately, the House education committee, which is now considering the matter, plans to hold public hearings. Changes that would affect all of Vermont education should be debated openly and fully.

Change in education governance should be guided neither by the wishes of one governor nor of a particular state board. The impact of such important public policy must be considered in light of Vermont's long-term educational goals.

Currently, in 28 states the board of education appoints the commissioner. In 14 states, commissioners are elected, and in only nine does the governor appoint. A result of political appointment is often a rapid turnover in commissioners as the governor's educational agenda adjusts to political trends. In Minnesota, for example, there have been five commissioners of education in a six-year period. While this kind of reactivity can be viewed as "responsive," in fact, no one can achieve the stability and direction necessary to meet serious goals in this kind of environment.

In Vermont, this political "responsiveness" would be heightened by the governor's two-year term of office. A gubernatorial appointment under these conditions stands the danger of discouraging the candidacy of the best educators at the top of their field, while at the same time encouraging candidates whose political talents are strong, but whose proven educational leadership is weak.

One of the great strengths of Vermont's educational system is that it is grounded in shared responsibility. Local boards of education, the legislature, the state board, the department of education, and the governor all have different and significant roles to play. The governor acts through his budget proposals, his appointments to the state board, his legislative initiatives, and his leadership. The legislature, through funding appropriations and passing the laws that govern, plays a pivotal role, as do the local school boards, which are responsible for raising nearly 75 percent of the funding necessary for educating our students.

The state board is an integral part of this system of checks and balances. Unbalancing this relationship and tilting it toward only the governor will destabilize a complex system of finances, policy, and responsibility.

What is currently wrong with education in Vermont is neither the governance system nor a lack of accountability. It is clear that our dependence on the property tax for the funding of education results in substantial inequities at the local level. This is the issue on which the legislature should be focusing its reform efforts. The achievement of equitable funding for education would allow Vermont to move ahead with educational initiatives, including charter schools, with a reasonable comfort level that no school would be left behind because of inequitable funding.

Whether one believes that Vermont's public education system needs fine-tuning or major surgery, one thing is clear: The remedies we select must be thoughtfully conceived and applied in a sustained, consistent, and fair manner. It would be naive to think that politics, simplistic slogans, and personal ambitions won't affect education in some ways, but there is no reason that they should become the dominant driving force.

Current law concerning the appointment of the commissioner by the state board was crafted to assure that partisan politics would not dominate the educational process. The pending legislation would make the commissioner a political appointee, serving "at the pleasure" of the governor. Should these changes become law, it seems inevitable that political expediency and personal allegiance will play a much greater role in Vermont education than most Vermonters would wish.

Sally Sugarman
Vermont State Board of Education
Shaftsbury, Vt.

Georgia's Political 'Marriage': Flight of Rhetorical Fancy

To the Editor:

As a writing teacher, I recommend that Education Week complete the following assignment: "Analyze your own rhetoric in 'Unlikely Alliance Targets Georgia Education Department'" (Jan. 24, 1996).

You should devote the same space--the same number of column inches--to the analysis. Why? Because your readers may then be satisfied that Education Week has not a wasted a "learning opportunity."

In a story about the Georgia governor and the state schools superintendent, you wrote that a "relationship ... as sweet as peach pie" existed between the two, a pairing that proves that "politics makes for strange bedfellows." However, although Gov. Zell Miller and Superintendent Linda Schrenko held conferences unchaperoned and "talk regularly," this may be only, you say, a "marriage of convenience."

Your readers will know the criteria for grading this assignment:

  • Does the student recognize that if the superintendent were a male carrying out professional duties (talking to the governor, negotiating differences), then the language of the article would be very different?
  • Does the student see that if additional facts affected the Georgia policy change under discussion in the article, then those facts or the quoted testimony of others should replace rhetorical innuendo?

Draft and revise.

Maria Warren
Tallahassee, Fla.

'Serious Play' Curricula Lack Tools For Parents

To the Editor:

I agree with Dale Mann's proposition that the entertainment industry should play a larger role in education and that the home should become the center of learning ("Serious Play," Commentary, Feb. 14, 1996).

Mr. Mann astutely suggests that marketing educational computer games and television programming to families will make as much money for companies as it will make a difference in children's lives. But, as he points out, none of the serious-play curricula being delivered now have the kind of content that will help the child's first teacher, the parent.

Homes should be the center of learning even without technology. Parents or mentors might read to children, listen to their questions, and explore with them cultural resources in the community. Who makes a profit from that? What incentive is there for private industry to teach parents to interact with their children and spend time learning with them?

Our best models of successful (profitable and classroom-worthy) edutainment games like "Carmen Sandiego" limit exploration to prewritten questions with only one answer. The binary nature of computers technically restricts response options. Even setting a range of acceptable answers does not replace the divergent thinking of two curious humans. Edutainment television programming is limited, too. The venerated "Sesame Street" was recently lamented in Education Week for failing to show adults reading and using print in context. And think of the roles mothers play in most popular Disney fiction: absent, evil, or inglorious compared with fathers. What values will be sent along with the educational content?

Profit is being made in education. One-to-one learning centers like Sylvan and Kumon fill a deeper, more basic need than the most attractive gamespersonal attention and time devoted to learning.

Homes that dedicate human resources to children's education would benefit immeasurably from the stimulating addition of technological resources. In homes where parents are not prepared to manage the child's education, disconnected and convergent video games and television programming may do more harm than good. The problem is, they'll still make a profit.

Kimberly Suttell
New York, N.Y.

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